How have English Language Learners fared under Common Core?

As we previously commented, the Courier-Journal and The Hechinger Report have collaborated on a series of articles about education in Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) during the Common Core era. We’ve already discussed the articles on achievement gaps for special education students and the one for racial minorities. In both cases, the Courier and Hechinger don’t paint a happy tale for these students in the era of Common Core.

The third article in the series examines the performance of students who are English Language Learners (ELL), officially termed “Limited English Proficient (LEP) in Kentucky Department of Education reports. Unlike the picture for racial minorities and special education students, the picture for English learners, who are mostly immigrants, isn’t quite so clear. However, it does look like LEP students have also fared poorly in the era of Common Core in Kentucky

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Education gaps and a tale of two editors

The Courier-Journal and The Hechinger Report are continuing their series on education in Kentucky under Common Core, which we first noted yesterday. However, the next article, which deals with how students with learning disabilities are faring in the era of Common Core, provides some interesting issues to discuss.

First off, consider the titles the editors at the Courier and Hechinger chose.

Hechinger’s headline shouts:

It’s unfair” special education students lag behind under Common Core in Kentucky.”

To put it mildly, the Courier’s “take” is dramatically different:

Closing gap for challenged kids can help others

The text of the articles appears to be the same in both publications, even though the editors’ main takes are dramatically different.

In this case, I think that Hechinger gets it more accurately. Here’s why.

The article does discuss the growing gap between students with disabilities and those without, which mirrors the growing white minus black achievement gaps we talked about in our earlier blog and in our “Blacks Continue Falling Through Gaps in Louisville’s Schools, The 2016 Update” report back in February. However, the Courier/Hechinger article also claims that the Field Elementary School in Jefferson County (Louisville area) is doing a really great job of improving performance for learning disabled students.


The published test scores do show impressive improvement for Field’s learning disabled students over the past few years, but there is a fly in the ointment – or maybe it’s an elephant.

You see, Field shows up in our Blacks Continue Falling Through Gaps report with the second largest white minus black achievement gap of all Jefferson County elementary schools. The gap is just shy of a staggering 50 percentage point difference!

That sounds ominous already, but there is more.

The 2015 Kentucky School Report Card for Field Elementary shows that in both reading and math, the proficiency rate for the school’s African-American students was only 27.6 percent. However, the school’s overall reported proficiency rate for its students with disabilities was much higher at 47.4 percent.

Does that really make sense? Should African-American kids, as a group, score much lower than kids with known learning disabilities?

Should this school really be used as a model for the rest of Louisville, something the article says is being considered by Jefferson County Schools?

Or, do we really need more answers about what is happening in this school such as an explanation of how scores for all black students can be so much lower than scores for students who are acknowledged to have learning issues?

BIPPS op-ed: Pension transparency does not violate privacy laws

aaronAn op-ed by Bluegrass Institute board member Aaron Ammerman in today’s Lexington Herald-Leader takes issue with recent claims by members of the Kentucky Retirement Systems Board of Trustees that making the commonwealth’s public pension system transparent would violate state and federal privacy laws.

“The statement that federal privacy laws prohibit the disclosure of this information is completely false; several states make these details public,” Ammerman writes.

While the state Senate unanimously passed two bills — Senate Bills 2 and 45 —  during the 2016 legislative session that would shine the light on Kentucky’s ailing pension systems, they failed to receive a vote on the House floor.

“Taxpayers have the right to ask questions and be assured that best practices are being implemented by all pension systems, including the legislators’ benefit plan,” Ammerman writes. “Only full transparency will relieve the doubts we have that such best practices are followed.”

Read the full op-ed here.

Courier-Journal and Hechinger Reports agree with us – Achievement gaps in Louisville are getting worse!

Back in February, the Bluegrass Institute released its updated report on the white minus black achievement gaps in Jefferson County schools. “Blacks Continue Falling Through Gaps in Louisville’s Schools, The 2016 Update” examined several sets of test scores to make the case that the achievement gaps in Louisville are not getting better.

Now, a new article out today from Hechinger Reports, “More than five years after adopting Common Core, Kentucky’s black-white achievement gap is widening,” obviously is making exactly the same point that we did back in February.

Oh, yeah, the Courier-Journal also ran the Hechinger article yesterday under the title, “Test scores show the gap between black and white students in Kentucky seems to be widening.”

It looks like more people are figuring out what we already told you months ago.

By the way, the Jefferson County Public School District fussed back in February that the Bluegrass Institute had not considered everything in our report. I wonder what JCPS will say to Hechinger and their own home town newspaper, too.

NAEP Expects What NextGen Science Standards Do Not

I am sure others can add their favorite examples of what the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) expects students to know by certain grades that NGSS ignores, but here is one good example from my area of interest as a graduate electrical engineer.

I found the problem in question while looking for questions from the new NAEP Technology and Engineering Literacy assessment. It is a fourth grade work problem from the 2009 NAEP Science Assessment. This work problem asks fourth grade students to explore some of the characteristics of electrical circuits using a battery, several light bulbs, and several samples of conductor and non-conductor materials.

NAEP 2009 G4 Science Electrical Problem Graphic

The big problem: NAEP clearly expects fourth grade students to have some exposure to closed electric circuits. However, the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) all but ignore the subject and generally delays what bits and pieces regarding closed electrical circuits that (maybe) are covered until later grades.

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Do ALL kids start school at the right time?

A growing body of research shows doing school enrollment on a once-only-each-year basis might not be in the best interests of students. The resulting age spread between the youngest and oldest students in each Kindergarten class is actually rather large, and there are indications that the difference really does matter for kids.

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School Choice Solutions Roundtable

BIPPS was recently honored to have Professor Gary Houchens from Western Kentucky University host a roundtable discussion on school choice for Kentucky. We captured Dr. Houchens’ great comments on video for you, and this is well worth a listen.

Bluegrass Beacon: Don’t know a lot about pensions? See a doctor

BluegrassBeaconLogoI recently stood in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, where 55 delegates gathered in May 1787 to create the U.S. Constitution and form a new government.

While that hallowed room is filled with desks and other period fixtures, the only original piece of furniture is the chair occupied by the future President George Washington while presiding over the convention.

Businessmen, merchants, shippers, farmers, scientists and physicians were framers of the document that would set their new nation on a path toward unprecedented freedom and prosperity.

If doctors were included in framing the foundation of this nation’s success, you will have a hard time convincing me that Madisonville dermatologist Bill Smith, M.D., is somehow unfit to serve on the board overseeing the troubled Kentucky Retirement Systems.

Smith, who served his country for nine years, rising to the rank of lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy, full commander in the Navy Reserve and served a tour as a flight surgeon with the Marine Corps, founded his practice in 2000 and has grown it into a multimillion-dollar operation.

Smith while building his practice has studied state and local retirement systems, including helping Madisonville successfully address challenges that threatened that city’s firefighter pension plan a few years ago.

For Smith, the solutions to saving and fixing arguably the nation’s worst government-run pension fund are not political. Rather, they involve doing the math and abiding by Kentucky’s Constitution and its statutes.

He strongly believes that decades spent ignoring Kentucky law requiring actuarial analyses of proposed benefits and benefit enhancements before they’re granted to employees or retirees has been a primary contributor to the decline of the state workers’ retirement fund – from being 74 percent funded a decade ago to currently containing only about 17 percent of the funding needed to cover future retirement benefits.

KRS bureaucrats want you to believe that the major contributor to Kentucky’s pension crisis is underfunding by the legislature and – as they occasionally admit – unproductive investments.

They vehemently oppose Smith’s appointment by Gov. Bevin to their board because the doctor’s made it known that the malady is the result of overspending in the form of enhancing benefits beyond available funding or a strategy to develop one beyond the biennial budgetary shakedowns of the General Assembly.

When it comes to enhancing benefits, for instance, the potential purchaser of a house or car must demonstrate he’s got funding – either in terms of up-front cash or the ability to make payments – before he’s allowed to move in or drive off the lot.

Smith posits the system is unsound because its leadership has performed like a buyer who purchases a house he can’t afford then goes to his employer and demands a raise because he’s “underfunded.”

This seems the model of choice for too many Frankfort politicians, who’ve offered new and increased benefits without either the funding or the required actuarial analysis. Instead, they just add the benefits’ increased costs to the funding to the state’s annual Actuarially Required Contribution (ARC). Then, when Frankfort doesn’t meet that obligation, detractors claim the system is underfunded.

It’s appalling that William Thielen, the retirement system’s overpaid and ineffective executive director, dismisses the statutorial requirement for solid analysis of what benefits cost before they’re granted as no longer acceptable.

I sat on the second row at the most recent meeting of the state’s Public Pension Oversight Board during which Sen. Jimmy Higdon, R-Lebanon, tried to impress upon Thielen that the legislature can no longer vote for benefit enhancements without at least an estimate regarding their future costs.

Thielen claimed such costs are “indeterminable.”


He knows that Smith, once he’s seated, will ask the questions, do the math and figure out what’s really going on in that huge retirement system.

No wonder Thielen obsessively opposes Smith’s appointment to the board to whom he answers.

Jim Waters is president of the Bluegrass Institute, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Reach him at Read previously published columns at


Bluegrass Institute president Jim Waters will speak @ Louisville Forum

ForumBluegrass Institute president Jim Waters will speak on “Can Professional Soccer Score in Louisville?” during this Wednesday’s Louisville Forum at Noon at Vincenzo’s, 150 S. Fifth St. in the River City. Waters also will participate in a panel discussion on the issue along with Amanda Duffy, president of the Louisville City Football Club (a United Soccer League team) and Jeff Mosley, deputy chief of Louisville Forward, a local government economic-development program. Purchase tickets

Waters also will participate in a panel discussion on the issue along with Amanda Duffy, president of the Louisville City Football Club (a United Soccer League team) and Jeff Mosley, deputy chief of Louisville Forward, a local government economic-development program. Purchase tickets

Find tickets here.

Bluegrass Beacon: Voice for reform silenced yet still heard

BluegrassBeaconLogoKentucky Roll Call publisher and American hero Lowell Reese, who was exposed to Agent Orange decades ago while fighting communism as a battalion commander in the jungles of southeast Asia, made the ultimate sacrifice for his country when he boarded his final flight from earth last week.

Reese took the oath to defend this country and its Constitution “against all enemies, foreign and domestic” seriously.

There is no expiration date on that oath, which he understood isn’t just about defending America against some foreign enemy on some far-away battlefield.

Reese also served his commonwealth in the same spirit by firmly confronting domestic foes of his fellow Kentuckians – policies that threaten their future and politicians who profit at their expense, particularly as it relates to Kentucky’s public-pension crisis deemed by credible researchers as the nation’s worst.

He took particular aim at passage of House Bill 299 in 2005, which he labeled a “Pension Greed Act” because it allowed Frankfort’s politicians to calculate the size of their legislative retirement checks based on their full-time salaries in other government positions rather than their earnings as legislators.

“This practice allows part-time legislators to convert their normal pension to super-sized pensions,” Reese wrote in “Future Shock,” a series of Bluegrass Institute-published reports which offered analysis of and solutions to the state’s retirement-plan woes.

He chastised politicians from both parties for taking advantage of this policy and published estimates of their projected taxpayer-funded pension windfalls in order to show how many of those who voted for the Greed Act would personally benefit to the tune of hundreds of thousands –  and even millions – of dollars.

It’s not coincidental that the first of his proposed solutions in that report was to make the commonwealth’s retirement plans transparent, allowing taxpayers – including retirees who depend on state-funded pensions for their livelihoods and economic security – access to the kind of information needed to hold Frankfort’s politicians accountable and achieve challenging reforms.

“His work has been a major catalyst toward at least the attempts at transparency we saw this year in Senate Bill 2,” Chris Tobe, author of “Kentucky Fried Pensions” and a former Kentucky Retirement Systems’ trustee, said.

SB 2 proposed shining the light on Kentucky pension plans’ contracts with hedge funds and private equity groups, requiring that all such agreements go through the bidding process.

“We have hundreds of secret no-bid contracts that the trustees, state Auditor and even legislative review committees cannot see,” Tobe said. “Only the KRS staff can see all of the information.”

Reese abhorred such secrecy, believing it to be a dangerous enemy to sound public policy and an insurmountable obstacle to solving a crisis that threatens the commonwealth’s economic security and vitality.

That’s why he was so deeply committed to making the legislative retirement system transparent. Senate Bill 45 – also introduced during this year’s General Assembly session – would have done.

Reese rightly believed that opening the curtains on politicians’ pensions was truly worth of – and eventually would receive – overwhelming bipartisan support and lead to making the entire system transparent.

Tobe notes that Reese also was one of the first to call attention to the fact that 30 percent of the 1,700 entities in the Kentucky Employees’ Retirement System aren’t even public agencies.

“Lowell was a very important voice in the pension debate,” he said.

Neither of the aforementioned transparency bills, which passed the Senate unanimously, received a vote on the House floor during this year’s legislative session. Yet for the first time they did get through the State Government Committee, despite the uninformed opposition of its chairman, Rep. Brent Yonts, D-Greenville.

The fact that the bills made it out of committee against House leaders’ entrenched hostility clearly indicates that though Reese’s voice may have been silenced by the enemy of death, it continues to ring strong throughout the commonwealth he loved and for which he fought.

Jim Waters is president of the Bluegrass Institute, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Reach him at Read previously published columns at